Thursday, January 8, 2009

Regarding the Pain of Others

Recently I was chatting with a so-called friend about my so-called life. I was grousing about some personal indignity, along with the concomitant depression and self-laceration, when the friend flatly replied, "Take how you're feeling right now, multiply it by 1,000 and you know what I am going through!" After picking my jaw up off the floor, I got to thinking on this topic of friends, sympathy and the perception of pain.

My knee-jerk reaction to this irony-free declaration was naturally, "What an ass! Why be friends with this person?" (and if it need even be stated, for the record, this person's drama was no more or less self-created than my own, but frankly, his maturity level is not relevant to my argument). Even from a perspective of logic and fairness, didn't German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein show us in his Investigations that subjective pain cannot be empirically measured? Perhaps this is the reason, paradoxically, why some people can be so insensitive to the suffering of others, including their companions. It could go a long way towards explaining why meinen Kumpel made his assertion of the pre-eminence of his own pain with such conviction and vigor, and seeming blindness to my own distinctive plight. Or maybe he's just an Arsch-loch.

I am not the most demanding friend, but I do have high standards and am constantly doubting motivations, loyalties and second-guessing in my mind. Just as I am always editing and revising my "friend list". I am also, paradoxically, the first to give the benefit of the doubt -- up to a point. I understand that in modern life we live in a broken world full of broken people, and there are limits to people's sensitivity and capacity for giving. It's possible -- just possible -- that in such cases the chiding friend is trying to use some tough love and show you that yes, there may be reason for upset, but, hey, cheer up! Things could be a lot worse. Sort of an oblique and calculating, albeit clumsy, way of making you feel better. But there are only so many mental contortions one can endure in the service of "benefit of the doubt". I mean, really. Come on.

I guess we're getting at the crux of the problem here. The mysterious "X" Factor behind it all. The aforementioned "brokenness" manifests itself in a host of rampant "disorders", here taking the form of Narcissism-with-a capital-N. Perhaps it isn't classical or even pathological narcissism, but an endemic low-grade narcissism which plagues even the lowliest of friendships, especially in our me-first, tits-hanging-out-of-the-car-window (or off the Facebook page) culture (see Knox, Amanda, for the apotheosis of this annoying trait). But I guess this is a typical problem -- little jousting matches of the ego -- when narcissists become friends with each other, or with anyone, for that matter. (Note to self: best dispense with the use of "narcissist" lest it become a personality-revealing verbal tic a la Caroline Kennedy and "you know".) In any relationship in which the "N" word factors, one is forever trumping the other in the selfishness stakes.

I have come to the conclusion that when it comes to sharing pain, depression, black moods and misfortune, better to keep it to yourself. Your friends? They don't want to hear it -- and it might be catching. In the adult world, there are real problems to be solved and, sadly, no time for such adolescent torment. Better to soldier on with a painted smile, grimacing through clenched teeth. Time to attack your problems, pick-ax or bleach-dipped toothbrush in hand, with an industrious, can-do attitude, working through the rubble of our ruined world like the Frauen in decimated Berlin after WWII. Larger issues are at hand -- you can't afford the luxury of a negative thought. Change is here. If not, spare your friends. Save it for your therapist.

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